Who Gets Stuck in the Friend Zone

24 Mar

Love for all!(Image by Matthias Ripp used under CC license via)


Well, I finally sat down and saw The Phantom of the Opera a quarter of a century after everyone else.  (If you don’t know the story, this parody sums it up pretty well.)  I won’t say what I thought of all the songs songs songs because I’m bound to alienate half my readers either way, but by the second to last scene, I was hollering at the screen: “Girl, you’d better not go for that swaggering bully in the mask!”  But then she ripped the mask off and he couldn’t stop crying and I was up to my eyelids in Kleenex, wailing: “If only he hadn’t killed so many people!  (And talked to her instead of stalked her… )  Now he’s just another disfigured guy stuck in the Friend Zone!  But his pain is reeeeeeeeal!”

This week, the word “Friend Zone” has been entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.  Many of my favorite feminists are not pleased.  Because the term is generally thought to be something only straight, bitter men complain about (see these Urban Dictionary definitions), many argue that it’s a misogynistic trope.  Lamenting the Friend Zone sends the message, however subliminally, that spending time with a female is pointless unless you gain access to her naughty bits.  Because who would want to be friends with a woman?! 

Such a bleak view of women is certainly a problem among many men.  In the words of John Mix Meyer, “Girls are not machines you put kindness coins into until sex falls out.”  Nice for the sake of nice is respect.  Nice only for the sake of getting laid is not.  As I’ve said before, cross-gender friendship could use a lot more support in books, film, and mainstream society.

But I’ve also used the word “Friend Zone” before because I don’t believe it refers only to this one chauvinistic idea.  Unrequited love isn’t fun for anyone.  Lots of women have been stuck in the Friend Zone, too.  Many people are expected by pop culture to always end up there, because society deems them asexual, and it could be helpful to examine why.  Almost every adult on earth craves love and sex, and we are all trying to figure out what attracts those we deem attractive. 

Men who sigh, “Girls don’t like nice guys,” need to get over their narcissism.  But there are others who wonder in earnest why the Friend Zone seems so jam-packed with quiet guys who genuinely respect women.  In stories of every genre, from classic literature (Madame Bovary) to modern literature (Freedom) to dime-a-dozen bodice-rippers (The Bridges of Madison County), bored heroines look past their straight-laced suitors to the tall dark stranger who’s not exactly famous for his fidelity or his feminism.  Love triangles always make for good drama, but when the heroine more often than not decides that the devoted sweetheart belongs in the Friend Zone and the unpredictable bad boy belongs in bed, many scratch their heads and repeat, “Why do girls always go for jerks?”  Or, as The Mr. T Experience sings, “I have some problems… but even Hitler had a girlfriend, so why can’t I?”

The answer often depends on the situation, but there are two fundamental, heteronormative traditions that prop it up:

The Macho Stereotype – Any guy who isn’t strong and independent to the point of being daring isn’t a “real man.”  Obeying the rules, doting on your wife, and being mediocre is emasculating.  Hence the double standard men are held to in real life: they are always expected to focus more on their success and autonomy than their emotional fulfillment.  Sociologist Stephanie Coontz has pointed out that the inordinate importance of independence to male worth is why homeless men arouse so much more disgust than homeless women.

The Gentler Sex Stereotype – A nice girl can see the diamond in the rough.  A man with a nasty wife is hen-pecked and pathetic, but a woman with a bad boy just might be the only one who understands him.  From a conservative standpoint, it’s virtuous of a woman to be so selfless and forgiving.  From a liberal standpoint, it’s the thrill of conquest that keeps her trying.  

A man’s worth is defined by his success, albeit many women accept broad definitions of success.  Western romances across the ages assert that special girls who search for the softer side of the bully or the bad boy will find it: Beauty and the Beast, Wuthering Heights, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Bonnie and Clyde, right up to Fifty Shades of Grey.  Pop culture reiterates ad nauseam how much men love the chase, but this trope shows that scores of women do, too.  For the starry-eyed heroine, it’s a challenge to stray from the disapproving masses—or her parents—and become the One Special Woman who can tame the beast and bring joy to his lonely life.  The higher the risk, the greater the reward.  The reward is knowing that she is deeper, different from those other girls who swoon over bland perfection.  Hence even America’s most famous feminist, Lisa Simpson, has looked past loyal, bespectacled Milhouse for Nelson, the schoolyard bully from a broken home.  

By far the most horrific result of this romantic tradition is the fact that too many women in real life endure abuse, or worse.  Pop culture sometimes concedes this and still has the audacity to romanticize it.  My high school did a production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel the same year Time magazine declared it the Best Musical of All Time.  After wife-beater Billy Bigelow dies in an armed robbery, his widow tells their daughter, “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you, hit you hard, and it not hurt at all.”  You see, truly devoted wives know that offering yourself up as his punching bag is a way to show your love and nurture him as he struggles with his demons.  Only a selfish bitch would leave him when he needs her most.

Carousel was written in 1956, but the trope is still going strong.  The final film of the Twilight series lead NPR’s Linda Holmes to observe:

When a saga popular with pre-adolescent girls peaks romantically on a night that leaves the heroine to wake up covered with bruises in the shape of her husband’s hands — and when that heroine then spends the morning explaining to her husband that she’s incredibly happy even though he injured her, and that it’s not his fault because she understands he couldn’t help it in light of the depth of his passion — that’s profoundly irresponsible.

Yes, we’re all having a good yuk over the unhinged quality of it all.  And yes, it’s a movie with a monster baby… But romanticizing an intimate relationship that leaves bruises and scars is a particularly terrible idea in a film aimed at girls.  Talking about this is tiresome, but then so is putting it in the movie.


But attraction to the forbidden is not always dangerous.  Sometimes the bad boy is just misunderstood.  There is a powerful romantic tradition of fine ladies risking wealth and status for true love.  (See Aladdin, Titanic, Robin Hood, Moulin Rouge, Lady and the Tramp, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Pirates of Penzance, The Pirates of the Caribbean.)  There are also classic tales of heroines opening the gates to social progress by debunking their families’ horrid prejudices when they fall for men outside their race/nationality/religion/species.  (See Pocahontas, South Pacific, Fiddler on the Roof, The Little Mermaid.)  The heroines of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Angst essen Seelen auf stare down the racial tensions of the era in which the films were released.  Meanwhile, Cyrano DeBergerac and the Phantom of the Opera both find out—albeit too late—that their beloveds would have looked past their disfigurement and loved them back. 

Since then, we’ve seen heroines end up with men with disabling injuries (often from war), while a handful go for guys who are congenitally disabled or disfigured.  As noted recently, Peter Dinklage’s romantic roles are possibly, finally breaking dwarf men out of the Friend Zone.  Great art obsesses over the blurry border between right and wrong, friend and lover, beauty and banality.  These compassionate heroines who try to understand the “bad” boys and the rejects help us deepen our perceptions of attractiveness.

It’s worth noting that the Phantom and Cyrano compensate for the supposed repulsiveness of their disfigurement with the sexiness of their genius.  They are supercrips.  Granted Gothic tales love to examine the complexity of blinding light draped in darkness.  I like a study of conflicting traits as much as the next starving liberal arts grad.  But it’s a ludicrously ableist tradition that only gives disabled superheroes a shot at intimacy, restricting ordinary disabled men like Quasimodo or the Seven Dwarfs to the Friend Zone.  And it’s an absurdly lookist tradition that restricts almost all of our disfigured and disabled women there.

Can you name a famous heroine who’s disfigured or physically disabled?  (Can you name a famous actress who’s visibly disabled, for that matter?  I might be able to, but I’d have to check Wikipedia to be sure.)  In the old days, disabled and disfigured girls might arouse sympathy (see Helen Keller), but the women were hags.  Period.  If women who were merely not conventionally attractive ever dared to step out of the Friend Zone and into the dating game, they were annoyingReally annoying.  And they were swatted away like flies.

Nowadays, love stories try to speak to women’s insecurities about their looks with quirky retellings of the Ugly Duckling or Cinderella.  The heroine perceives herself as unattractive, moaning, “Is it because of my [thighs/eyes/nose]?!”  (Rather than cursing, “That shallow jerk stuck me in the Friend Zone!”)  But we eventually see that she truly is a knock-out and it’s just a matter of finding the right man who will wipe the soot off her face, pay for a makeover, or simply remove her glasses.  Children’s films are getting a little better: Shrek and The Princess and the Frog feature heroines who are green-skinned for part of the courtship, though their Otherness is not quite as realistic as the Phantom’s or Quasimodo’s.  We’ve yet to see a heroine angrily unveil a severe facial deformity and hear her strapping lover say, “I think it’s intriguing.  And I wanna knock boots with you.  So.  Bad.” 

And why not?  Francis Bacon said, “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”  I’ve overheard countless guys say, “Chicks dig scars.”  Which is true.  Lots of chicks got scars, too.

The popularity of a story is by no means an empirical examination of our values.  Most people I know are so much deeper than pop culture gives us credit for.  And there is a lot more to many of these stories than the tropes I just reduced them to.  But it would be daft to pretend that they have nothing to do with our collective psyche.  Every one of us treasures those romantic moments we experienced that were “just like in a movie.”  Our most popular books and films simultaneously reflect and influence what we tend to think is hot.  And when it comes to opening our minds, fiction is often the best messenger.  We look to entertainment for escape and to art for enlightenment.  The most powerful stories provide both. 

When I attended a lecture at the Network of Disabled Women in Berlin two weeks ago, there was a debate as to whether reality TV shows and documentaries help or harm perceptions of disabled women.  Good documentaries smash stereotypes by providing facts and figures, but the over-representation of disabled women in such reports combined with their invisibility in love stories, detective stories, and silly sitcoms suggests that they exist solely as objects of study.  They are there to satisfy our curiosity, but we’re rarely asked to root for them the way we root for Rapunzel or Bridget Jones.  We never follow them on a journey dripping with passion.  We should. 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s newborn definition of “Friend Zone” reads: “a situation in which a platonic relationship exists between two people, one of whom has an undeclared romantic or sexual interest in the other.”  It doesn’t say it’s exclusively a problem for men.  And good for them.  To me, the term will always evoke the potentially destructive idea that certain “types” of people don’t ever need or deserve intimacy.  And we’ve got to keep questioning it.  Children, animals, and self-proclaimed asexuals automatically belong in the Friend Zone, along with your clients, patients, and students.  The disabled, the disfigured, the elderly, the ordinary, and the unsuccessful do not automatically belong there.  I’m counting on all of us, the storytellers and the lovers, to recognize the word so that we can recognize the problem.




6 Responses to “Who Gets Stuck in the Friend Zone”

  1. Archy May 12, 2013 at 2:58 pm #

    “But there are others who wonder in earnest why the Friend Zone seems so jam-packed with quiet guys who genuinely respect women. ”

    Often the friendzone is a place where she KNOWS he likes her, KNOWS he is doing stuff for her that isn’t what typical friends do and is USING him for it. That’s where the majority of bitterness I see with my friends comes from. Toying with peoples emotions, flirting, leading them on, using them, all these things messing with that guy (or girl)’s self-esteem. Usually it’s youth and inexperience which help this situation happen which is bad because it can taint that person’s view of dating for quite a while after. It plays havok on people who get a bad string of luck and get messed around by one after another, and if there isn’t anyone who is decent who shows interest in that person then you can get the “nice guys finish last” thoughts, or the “men just want sex” thoughts.

    Sure there are some who get bitter because she doesn’t magically know he is into her, but in my experience the bitterness with friends n people I have known comes from her behaviour actively flirting and crossing the line between friends and more. Talking about her underwear very late at night, being overly touchy, not setting any clear boundaries, these things can end up causing a lot of bitterness if it’s not clear WHY someone is doing it and the person makes the mistaken assumption that she is into them.

    Considering how often I see guys talk about it, I am utterly surprised many women are clueless as to when men are using the term. Have you never heard of a man being used by a woman and says he’s sick of the friendzone? Never heard a guy say his relationship with a female feels like he is a boyfriend that doesn’t get any sexual intimacy (Kissing, sex, sexual touch) where it doesn’t feel like he is just a friend. To rub salt in the wound he’s probably the goto guy when she has a problem and to hear her troubles with another guy can be quite hard to deal with.

    Personally I define teh friendzone as having foulplay in it, where she is using him, or doing actions which he has every right to feel messed around with. Stringing someone along and playing into their hopes is a horrible thing to do regardless of genders. I think women are more often the stuckatfuckbuddy stage and have trouble progressing to relationships from what I hear whilst it’s more common for guys to be stuck at just friendship.

    No one is entitled to sex, but no one is entitled to a friendship either. A man who is in love with his female friend but she rejects his advances has no right to expect him to even stick around…that shit is painful, not everyone can overcome their romantic feelings and they have every right to leave if that friend cannot be what they want them to be. When that guy leaves I see many women say something like he felt entitled to sex and is bitter because he didn’t get any, but what shes actually showing is her own entitlment to assume he would be a friend even if it’s painful. Heartbreak is painful as hell and I don’t blame anyone for ditching a friend if it hurts too much to be there friend. I also see some will say that the guy was only her friend to get laid….and for some that may be true but there is also the other issue of people like myself who want to get to know someone and along the way we get attracted. I have female friends first n foremost because I want friends but I am attracted to some and that attraction grows after knowing them. If I fell madly for someone who didn’t want me that way it may very well be too painful for me to continue being her friend for the time being or maybe forever. It sucks but that is life.

    There’s far far far more to the friendzone than male entitlement, you can’t forget female entitlement and the plethora of issues surrounding friendship with people you’re attracted to. Some people are entitled assholes, some are just heartbroken and feel like they won’t get love. I can’t blame people who continually end up being told the “just friends” line to be annoyed at their LUCK with dating. Given the narrative many young men grow up with where to get a partner they had to WIN her heart by being overly nice (many movies are responsible for this shit) we end up with a massive problem where men are told to be nice, it will get you a woman!

    Does anyone else notice many women use a narrative of friendzone guys where they focus on the man wanting sex and overlooking men looking for a relationship which includes both sex but also love? EVERY guy I’ve heard use the niceguy/friendzone words has wanted a relationship, not just sex.

    “Because who would want to be friends with a woman?! ”
    One issue is that it becomes extremely annoying to CONTINUALLY be just friends when you are looking for more and there is only a certain amount of friends you can have really. People have ever right to only want potential romance and not more friends, a person who has 100 friends of the gender they’re attracted to and no luck with finding a date has every right to feel pissed off at his or her luck. It sucks for future friends but it sucks for the person who is only getting half of what they desire, it’s also quite soul-crushing and really attacks the self-esteem to continually be rejected and makes one feel incredibly ugly.

    When you are told by A LOT of women that they LOVE nice guys, and that trait is used as the pinnacle of what women are attracted to then it becomes a supremely big problem when it’s also used as a way to let a man down nicely. “You’re such a nice guy, BUT” are words that can really sting because the man is hearing “You are supersexy but I am not attracted to you”. Wouldn’t you be wondering why you’re such a nice, sweet, great guy which those traits are super sexy, supermodel, best guy ever type attributes yet time n time again you’re passed over? The real kicker is when the guy is passed over for another guy who is abusive, or treats her badly, is a “bad guy”. That breeds the “nice guy finishes last” concept and “women want bad guys”. It’s sad because many people tend to forget there is no universal attraction, not everyone is going to like the same thing and that yes some people like bad guys, some like nice guys. What isn’t said enough is that being nice isn’t enough, women as a group really need to stop painting the word nice as equivelent to sexy because being nice is the basis of a friendship.

    Just my thoughts on the subject after seeing plenty of nice guys, “nice guys”, assholes who call themselves nice guys, and a shitload of women misunderstand those guys. Basically it all boils down to the path to love hurts like hell for many and the genders absolutely suck at communicating desire to each other for the most part, boundaries are not set, desires aren’t always told to the desired, sometimes bad people use good people at very vulnerable times in their life and influence their future relationships.

    • AJD November 12, 2013 at 3:54 am #

      “she KNOWS he likes her, KNOWS he is doing stuff for her that isn’t what typical friends do and is USING him for it.”

      …Seriously? What does “USING him for it” even mean? If you actually care for someone, that’s called “being kind to someone”, not “being USED by them”.

      I mean, you know, I get disappointed and sad when a woman I’m friends with and attracted to doesn’t want to sleep with me, but that doesn’t mean I stop being friends with her, you know? Because I actually like her and don’t just see her as a sex object.

      • Archy November 12, 2013 at 10:28 am #

        Meaning that she willingly uses the increased attention, gifts, resources, whatever he does WHILST leading him on to believe there is something more than friends. Decent people do not do this, usually people are mutually friendly, help each other out. Decent people do not lead people on, flirt way past the “line”, and make the other believe that they have a major chance.

        None of that is even remotely close to seeing her as a sex object. It is actually her who is treating him like an object, disregarding his feelings and willfully manipulating him. If it’s simply a case where she doesn’t like him, let’s him know, then it’s not friendzone in my books. A woman (or man) who does use someone like that isn’t a friend, and you’re better off without them. If it’s just unrequited feelings, she/he wants to just be friends then there’s no need to stop being friends unless you are really messed up by the sadness and can’t handle it.

  2. AJD November 12, 2013 at 3:55 am #

    “We’ve yet to see a heroine angrily unveil a severe facial deformity and hear her strapping lover say, ‘I think it’s intriguing. And I wanna knock boots with you. So. Bad.’”

    Actually this totally happens in the musical _Violet_. Check it out!

    (Well, actually it’s a scar rather than a deformity—i.e., it’s acquired, rather than inborn. But still.)


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